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john ibbitson

Three Conservative senators are actively campaigning for Maritime union. That campaign will almost certainly fail.

Vested interests and local pride – not to mention the challenges of reopening the Constitution – will prevent the merger of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island into a single province.

But unless the three provinces take immediate and drastic action to combine operations and reduce costs, Maritimers will face a bleak and crisis-prone future. On that, both federal Conservatives and Liberals appear to agree.

The latest push for Maritime union began with Donald Savoie, a widely respected authority on government and public administration at the University of Moncton, who in recent weeks has been calling for an active debate on uniting the three provinces.

"We have an infrastructure that we can't sustain," he said in an interview. "We have to get our act together."

Look at any report; pull up any statistic. Over the past decade, New Brunswick has lost almost a quarter of its manufacturing jobs and 40 per cent of its forestry work force.

Prince Edward Island's deficit last year was twice what was projected, for which TD Economics blamed rising health costs and the province's "limited fiscal capacity."

Wages and salaries in Nova Scotia have increased by less than half the national average over the past year, according to the province's Finance Department.

The populations of the Maritime provinces are aging faster than those of other parts of Canada, increasing the burden on their health services, even as the economic base needed to pay for those services erodes.

The provinces would be insolvent without federal transfers, which account for one third of Nova Scotia's budget, 36 per cent of New Brunswick's and 40 per cent of PEI's. (For Ontario, the figure is 19 per cent.)

The Harper government has made it clear that equalization transfers will not increase beyond the rate of economic growth. That's not nearly enough to meet the burgeoning health-care and infrastructure needs of the Maritime provinces. This is why Nova Scotia Senator Stephen Greene, John Wallace of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island's Mike Duffy are calling on the provinces at least to discuss union.

(Mr. Greene was to deliver a speech on Sunday night promoting the idea; he declined to provide an early copy of his text.)

Union is unlikely to happen voluntarily. Political elites and bureaucracies have no incentive to surrender their privileges, while most Maritimers identify strongly with their individual province.

Nonetheless, the provinces must act, insists Nova Scotia Liberal MP Scott Brison.

"The fiscal and demographic challenges facing the Maritimes are massive," he warns.

While not supporting full union – "it spooks people" – Mr. Brison does call for measures not far short of it.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI should merge their government procurement and back-office operations, he maintains. They should forge a regional immigration strategy; they should share education technology and curricula; they should create a regional e-health strategy; they should merge their securities commissions.

He also wants the provinces to merge and then sell off their liquor commissions, using the money to pay down debt.

And he would like to see the federal government promote regional co-operation through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and other departments.

Mr. Brison acknowledges that regional politicians would much rather "kick the can down the road" than work together on what amounts to union-in-all-but-name.

"We are either going to make some difficult decisions now, or some excruciatingly painful ones in the future," he warns.

As populations age, as the young and talented migrate west, and local revenues fail to bridge the gap between need and federal handouts, lenders will impose increasingly punitive interest rates on the region's provinces and municipalities. The Maritimes will become the Mediterranean. When that happens, people might wish they had heeded the voices of those who called for drastic action when there was still time.

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